Are you going … to San Frantasia?

I invite you to be my guest on a trip to an enchanted place – where dreams and history, fantasy and hope combine into a land that never was,  and will never be – but whose promise still shines brightly today. 

Copyright Albert Tolf, San Francisco

“It is the bridge to enchantment – Sunshine, Sails, Surf, Birds, Kites & Joy.  Hillside Gardens forever in bloom.  Fishing wharfs, foghorns & Moviemakers.  Architectural Daring – high as the hills.  The taste of goodness & and touch of whimsy.  It’s the past, present and future, flower stands & the bell atop a cablecar.  

San Frantasia – Timeless wonderland of the West.”

Decades ago, these were the words at the bottom of the poster which I saw among the pieces of history at the Orange Empire Railway Museum in Perris, CA, buried in an old freightcar filled with lamps, timetables, and more.  The jumbled vision of old and new, whimsy and dreams, caught my eye – never imagining I would one day live here in the less colorful yet still vibrant real city by the bay.  Like many curiosities that attract my eye, it faded into my memory, stirred recently by discussion with a friend who asked me to find it online – along with new discoveries. I hope you will let me guide you along the path that helped me find it after all those years.      

It turns out “San Frantasia” sprang from the vision and imagination of Albert Tolf, whose father Albert Tolf Sr. emigrated in 1900 from Sweden, settling eventually in Joliet, IL where Albert Jr. was born in 1916.  He had formal training at the Chicago Institute and for a while assisted on the now nearly forgotten “Gasoline Alley” newspaper comic. Following a vacation trip to San Francisco in the late 30’s, Albert fell in love with the city, moving here in 1948.   He worked on billboards and other commercial projects, including scenic painting for an amusement park under construction in Southern California – a risky venture by another visionary, Walt Disney’s Disneyland.  Soon, Albert gave up commercial art to build his own gallery featuring his oil paintings, at six SF locations over 20 years, including Post at Sutter near Union Square, the Transamerica tower, and a Holiday Inn lobby on Kearny.  One profile described him riding around his gallery on a custom unicycle! Albert married his wife Naomi in 1967, retiring to Santa Rosa where he passed in 1996. 

1974 profile of “Albert Tolf – Swedish American”

Another explorer provided an online window that opened my eyes to the broader world of Albert Tolf’s vision. In 2016, local resident and respected photographer Ron Henggeler was exploring a Berkeley bookstore, and found a worn volume published by Albert called “This was San Francisco”.  He too was charmed by the illustrations of local lore and events.  He scanned and cleaned all of the images, which you can find on his personal website, including thousands of wonderful historical and current images. I hope you will explore his amazing online gallery, but here is where you can see the entire book of Albert’s collection of local facts and curiosities –

The original images were published over several years in the 50’s, when Albert provided a weekly cartoon “In Old San Francisco”, illustrating local history and lore to the “San Francisco News”. This publication is long gone, like many, as after mergers it was eventually bought and shuttered by the San Francisco Examiner.  The website above has all of the illustrations, but here is just one example, of a name many of us know (and a treat many of us have enjoyed!) – Ghirardelli Chocolate.   


From “In Old San Francisco”, First edition 1959, by Albert Tolf

After some more digging, I found that the volume Ron Henggeler had discovered was a revised reprint of the original edition, “In Old San Francisco”, published in soft cover in December 1959.  But I still didn’t know where “San Frantasia” came from?  As I learned in the few articles I was able to track down online, Albert created numerous images of his beloved city, as well as artwork of local landmarks in both present and past times, such as Union Square and the Embarcadero.  

“The San Francisco Waterfront in 1903” by Albert Tolf

Eventually I learned, to my surprise, the original poster which I had seen years before was initially available accompanying another smaller 1966 publication – “Al Tolf’s San Francisco .. Timeless Wonderland..” which he described as “a presentation of seven impressions and caricatures” with “one plate reproduced as a lithographic print”.  Tolf is quoted as saying “San Francisco is like one big Disneyland”, and it is clear his imagination was unfettered. Several of those images follow … because, as you see below, I engaged in retail therapy and tracked down – separately – both original books and the print for my own. It was apparently quite successful, with one article noting in time over 12,000 posters were sold.  A few even apparently remain on display in some locations scattered around our city, their origins mostly forgotten. 

When I look at this amazing “gee whiz” world that Tolf created in his poster, filled with cable cars on impossible heights, steam engines and horse drawn buggies alongside dirigibles, unending construction of skyscrapers near tiny houses, horses and convertibles – I am inspired.  This is a vision, yes, a dream – and I am struck by how that dream endures even over 50 years after he created it.  Today we are facing upheaval here and in our broader world, our village where creative and personal freedom, fringe culture and groundbreaking thinking have been birthed for over half a century since his publication.  Still, even now, in this time of uncertainty, sometimes bleak and seemingly impossible challenges – San Francisco remains and endures and becomes and evolves.  Just as, in a shorter time frame than this city, we all must, constantly, and at a seemingly increased pace.  Somehow, this vision I feel in Albert Tolf’s art gives me – hope. 

But the most intriguing article I found was from the San Francisco Rotary in 1967 – the second oldest chapter in the world! They were very kind to share with me that Albert, a devoted member, even designed their “Grindings” newsletter masthead, still in use today – shown here with their permission (thank you!).  It captures in just a few detailed lines much of our iconic city.   

Image courtesy of the Rotary Club of San Francisco, by Albert Tolf

The article showed a “work in progress” which hopefully still exists today, for the upcoming anniversary of the Golden Gate bridge.  Like his talent, it was large – as was his love for his city – and was created for display in the Rotary offices. But, as change comes to all things, Rotary closed their office in time, and passed it on to another non-profit agency with a long heritage – I hope to discover they still have it on display, and that I can share this history of their treasure for future preservation. 

Albert Tolf, 1967, “Golden Gate Bridge” work in progress for SF Rotary Club

As much as I would love to have one of his amazing originals of this “Timeless wonderland” that has become my home, I am happy to have brought “San Frantasia” and his books into my life. For those who are fortunate to have one of his many whimsical sketches, or full on oil paintings of his beloved city, or railroads, and other places he loved – perhaps our trip through time will help them learn of Albert’s amazing life – and to realize they have a small treasure.

It’s hard to say just why thinking of San Frantasia gives my heart a lift, but it does.  Although it’s impossible for me to pick out one “favorite” segment of his detailed vision, this tiny image from the lower right side is perhaps the perfect way to thank Albert, and all the dreamers and characters, visionaries, adventurers, scoundrels and outliers that brought us the city we love today.  May it endure, and continue to be a shining star for future generations.  “The best is yet to come” – it is now in our hands to bring that dream just a little closer to reality.  Shall we? 

Detail from “San Frantasia” by Albert Tolf, 1966

Resources –

Tattered pages, echoes of faith

Robert Titus Pence and Elizabeth Conger … their names written in faded ink on a colorful page, along with their children.  Nearly 175 years have passed since they wed in 1847 – but it still speaks.  I hear the whispers as I carefully explore the pages, images, and scraps inserted by those long gone. 

Robert’s grandfather, Johann Heinrich Bentz, changed his name to Henry Pence when he emigrated to the colonies in 1749, arriving in Philadelphia with his family at age 9 – hard to imagine a journey like that for a little boy.  Henry married at age 25 and had at least 16 children, raising them in the colony of Virginia, including Robert’s father, “Judge” John Pence. Born there is 1774, John really was a judge, and eventually settled in Oquawka, IL on the western border, married 3 times and fathered 16 children as well.  Just think of how many grandchildren Henry must have had! Robert was born in 1817.  After his first wife and infant daughter passed, Robert married Elizabeth Conger in June 0f 1847, and raised their family of 11 children in Oquawka. 

“RT Pence 1876” is written on an otherwise blank front page of the leather bound bible, making it nearly 150 years old.  It is huge and heavy, worn – perhaps from use, but probably mostly from age.  It is difficult to imagine someone reading this by candlelight, carrying it across the continent over generations. The “family record” page is in color, and legible – but the binding is collapsed, pages missing and torn.    Like many of the items that have found their way to my files, library and stacks of paper – it is irreplaceable.  A reminder of people mostly forgotten except through a few preserved stories and photos with forgotten faces.  They speak to me through these once lost treasures – and their unspoken testimony. 

After their first child, son Harry, was born, Robert captained a wagon train to Hangtown, California, during the gold rush – now, Placerville.  The account of that journey was shared with the readers of the Oquawka “Spectator”, departing in March 1850 and arriving in July.  I had always thought that was how his family came to be here in California, spreading west – but I was wrong.  He returned home, safely but not richer, and remained for nearly 20 more years – their last child, my great grandfather Arthur Sherman Pence, was born there in 1847.  In 1870, Robert and family lived in Kansas, but eventually he bought ranch property in Parkfield, California. 

I have always thought it providential that so many pieces of my family history have somehow found their way into the stacks of paper I now sort through, gaining and understanding of how challenging it was for my ancestors to come from other continents here, hoping for a brighter future.  It was not easy for any of them, from Germany, Portugal, Scotland and Britain, nor from the family members they married from Spain, Mexico, and other areas of Europe – building new lives, surviving, sacrificing and struggling.  Their lives are woven through time into a tapestry whose colors I am just beginning to see – a living legacy across the west and beyond. 

The Sutro library here in San Francisco has a copy of a book written by another son of Robert’s, Kingsley Adolphus Pence – who, although married, died childless, but lived a fascinating life.  Like me, he developed an interest in writing about his family heritage, and published his book in 1912, now available online as well as in many genealogical libraries, including many photos and anecdotes.  Another distant relative, Richard “Dick” Pence, was a pioneer as well, an early advocate of computer based genealogy. He maintained a website about the extended Pence family which I found online, and corresponded with before he passed in 2009.  He provided me with the transcription of my great great grandfather’s journey west.  It is intriguing to me that two generations at least before me were drawn to understanding their family’s past. 

As I turn through the pages of the Bible, I realize I am probably the first in decades to do so.  How it came into my Uncle Morley’s hands I am not certain, but I am grateful to have it now.  There is a letter from Robert Titus written from Parkfield in 1886 – mostly illegible, to one of his sons. I know that my great grandfather, Robert and Elizabeth’s youngest child Richard, eventually worked for the railroad in California and Oregon, where he met his wife Nellie, one of the pioneer Applegate family.  As was the case with many families, unlike his parents, they had only one child – my grandfather, whose two children were my uncle and Mother.  There are letters from Arthur to his brother, thankfully typed – and from them I learn that he needed his brother to provide a notarized statement of the Bible as proof of Arthur’s birthdate and citizenship.  This would make him eligible for the Railroad Retirement act of 1934, in the depths of the depression – he had remarried and was reaching out for help, and the Bible record of his birth gave him the proof he needed to receive it. 

There are also clues to the heritage of Richard Titus Pence wife, Elizabeth Conger, who was little more than a name to me. I find inserted among the pages a copy of the Oquawka Spectator from August, 1902 … describing her passing and burial.  There are also two handwritten brochures from her brother, an O. T. Conger, who is mentioned in the newspaper. One appears to be a treatise on “Foreign Missions” that he presented in Lincoln, Omaha, Malvern and New Albany on occasions ranging from 1874 to 1885; another, in very tiny detailed script, is titled “A quiver of arrows” and includes thoughts and stories – apparently a reference for him in developing sermons, as a little digging shows him to have been a respected Baptist minister.  I find online his obituary showing he left behind a widow and 3 children – I hope one day to find a descendant who would see these as treasures to preserve of their own heritage. 

But it is the remembrance article from 1902 that tells me the most about Elizabeth, her family, and the impact of faith on at least some of her children.  Robert had passed in 1889 and she spent her final years with a daughter’s family in Colorado; at the time of her passing, five sons remained alive, and one, Robert Lincoln Pence, accompanied his mother’s body back by train from Colorado to Illinois, to be buried where her husband family had been laid to rest at Rozetta cemetery.  As I read the words, the depth of feeling is conveyed in a way that still holds power over 100 years later ..

“And now, in the old grave yard, where are laid her father and mother, where he sisters are laid, where he husband and our father, where her daughters and our sisters are sleeping, in the presence of old associates, the casket, borne by the arms of old friends, is our mother laid. Perhaps we, her sons, may never be permitted to see the graves of those near to us again, but in this old haven of rest, the old burial ground at Rozetta, it seems meet to leave her”.  

Oquawka Spectator notice of passing of Elizabeth Conger Pence, August 1902
Memorial Card for Robert Titus Pence, in my grandfather’s papers

I do not know fully the history of how my ancestor’s viewed faith – many families then, and some now, simply had bibles given to them. So, it is impossible to know what meaning faith had to these souls long gone; whether the Bible was simply a volume to record births, or a source of hope and encouragement.  For now, it is time to put it away again, until such time comes as another follows after my quest ends. It and other documents of faith for families over centuries has served many different purposes, and for many today they are of lesser relevance – but the impact of faith itself on their voyages, their quest, reaches into our own even if only buried deep in our DNA.  Whatever answers they sought, and found, are not unlike those that many of us have today, in very different times. They too, perhaps even more so, faced an uncertain future, with hopes and dreams, fears and obstacles. The faith of our fathers and mothers may be one we do not share, or even know – but its seeds brought forth our own lives as well. I find comfort in these letters, and these tattered pages, knowing that as they sought strength and guidance to make their way through the challenge of an emerging world, so shall I.  So shall, hopefully, we all.  

“Sometimes I cry when I see the boys”

Memorial day weekend, 2020

What do we gain by looking at the past?  Some might say, very little.  Yes, we live in the present, and hope and plan for a better future – but the past still speaks.  It tells us stories – sometimes in words, in letters, more recently in videos, and silently in photos, in eyes that gaze into our present from times we never walked in, and people we never knew in life.   

Perhaps you, like myself and many others, look back on your childhood and feel a combination of gratitude, nostalgia, and yearning – some things you treasure, some you wish could have been different. Although we cannot change what happened –sometimes, life gives us an opportunity to see the past through new eyes.  I was given that opportunity, and it helped me understand my heritage, my family, and life in ways that I would not otherwise appreciated.  I feel today’s attempt to share how this came to pass for me will not be fully successful – too long, too personal, perhaps – but if you are willing to come along, let me try to share how seeing the past anew helped me build a better future. 

My Parents – in their only “Non wedding” picture together …..

This look back begins with a stack of letters in the 1960’s – from probably my age four to age 8 or 9.  My Mom, as she did with so many things, kept the letters – some would I know question the wisdom in that, but I am grateful she did.  They are undated, for the most part – all but a few typewritten, from my Dad to my Mom.  He would type them at work, I believe – some even on the stationary of the “correctional institution” where he spent his career.  Although I have wonderful childhood memories, I have few of my parents being together; they divorced when I was 7, being separated much of the time before then.  So they are my father’s words, not my memories.  Whether my Mom wrote back is unknown, but I doubt that she would have. 

Here is the beginning of one from I believe 1964, just the first stanza of a poem from my Dad to Mom – 

Ten years ago today, you became my wife

My pledge of love to you was for all of my life

Our honeymoon I remember, so well, so very well

Why did it have to change and become a living hell.

The poem, titled “To Nancy with Love”, continues for 7 more stanzas.  One page, brimming with regret, anger, sadness, pleading – like all of the roughly 2 dozen others.  My parents had married in 1954, my brother born the next year, I in 1958.  She had worked at McDonnell Douglas in Long Beach, her coworker’s husband worked with my Dad at the state prison at Terminal Island; they met, dated and were wed at her mother’s home. They honeymooned in Ensenada (she kept the napkins and matches from the hotel) and ultimately moved into central and then Northern California as my Dad transferred to different correctional facilities, eventually returning to Southern California, where family remained and where I grew up.  

Wedding Day, May 1, 1954 – Long Beach, California

Dad’s letters are filled with pain, but vary wildly, sometimes even within the same letter – one five pages long, typewritten.  Dad revisits arguments, his attraction to other women, medications, group meetings, talking with doctors and counselors and even the priest at the prison; feelings of hopelessness, loneliness, apologies.  Promising that he has always loved her, always will; in one, he blames Mom for the most recent incident, whatever that was, and points out her “unhappy life with your father”, which was true.  Her parents had divorced in the 30s, when that was quite rare, and I know she was scarred by it.  But he also admits to his problems with drinking; of physical violence between them; of emotional abuse. He talks about leaving our home after a heated argument, emotionally upset, and driving the car off the freeway.   “I often cry when I see the boys”. Yes, I realize, he truly did cry.  Nearly 6 decades later, I can feel the pain in his words.  He wanted a better life, but he didn’t know how to make it happen.  

Of course, all these letters were written while they were separated, and in some cases even after the divorce.  Some letters touch on problems at work, staying with his older brother whose wife had died, his ailing parents, his mother’s stroke and hospitalization and his father’s decline.  In his later years, Dad told me stories of his own father’s alcoholic issues – about his mother sending him to “get his father home from the whorehouse in time for Sunday dinner”.  One letter includes a detailed budget, with the notation – “Since there isn’t any money, I will have to stop drinking, but not because of your dramatic performances and emotional feelings”.  She was emotional; she also had severe health problems, exacerbated by rheumatoid arthritis that developed after my brother’s birth.  They struggled financially, like many families.  And I am sure there were other families in our neighborhood dealing with alcoholism, or worse issues.  

It is somewhat revealing to read Dad’s thoughts about my brother and I, referencing regret about missing my birthday, our first Christmas apart, and other events.  In one, he says my brother has “much better control of his temper” and that I am “still full of the devil but is growing also”.  There is a note about taking my brother camping for the weekend with the neighbor boy (their father was a local attorney, also divorced).   In one he talks about plans to go to Disneyland “soon” – I remember a trip, perhaps that was a seed that led to my own love of “the happiest place on earth” – a place I saw as a  refuge from my own pain in adult life, when I had not yet realized the answer to the loneliness and isolation I struggled with, like Dad, lay within, not in escape from reality.  

The only pic I have of me with both my parents together

Mom also had stacks of letters from attorneys; issues about his owing fees, the ownership of the home and property; and Dad’s handwritten will leaving his property to my brother and me.  One attorney letter advised Mom that Dad was going to tell the state, who had financed the home mortgage under a veteran program, that he was abandoning the home and to take action against her; in another, her attorney indicates that Dad was representing their divorce was “off” due to “conciliation” – but that was not to be.  Their divorce was final in October 1965 after years of separation.  In the end, the home was awarded to Mom, along with $150/month alimony and $100/month child support for each of us – $350 a month. Mom’s physical and emotional deterioration continued; she never returned to work.  

In 1966, when I was 8, my Dad married a wonderful woman who did what she could to include both my brother and I in their lives.   We went on vacations to Pismo Beach and Arizona, I spent weekends visiting them a few blocks away.  In time, they had a son, and he and his family continue to be a blessing in my life.  My Dad did all he could, I believe – within his ability – to provide for my brother and I, to support us.  I remember the weekend visits, the trips to work, watching “Seymour presents” and “The Outer Limits” on TV together, and later, support and encouragement in other ways.  But no one has all happy memories. 

Friend, I do not want you to read these words and be downcast or depressed.  But something inside me quietly whispers that whatever value my experience has to offer others is dependent on understanding the depth of what came before.  I literally have only one memory of my parents being together – my coming home from kindergarten with classmate Tina from down the street, to find my father screaming at my mother outside the home, her on the porch crying, and then him driving away.  I suspect it was a form of self-preservation that the rest was erased from my memory.   In a home with little money for anything other than food, I grew up feeling different from all the children in my classes; I remember the pain of 5th grade open house when I was the only child with no one coming to participate, and the loneliness of not being able to talk about TV programs with others because we had no TV in our home, and no car to go to school events. And, in time, I became aware of the other difference, the one that was not allowed, that caused my isolation to become even deeper – from others, and from myself.  I buried my soul so deeply that life without hope, and intimacy, seemed normal. 

We put together photograph albums, we set them aside, with the pretty pictures, the smiles, the happy memories.  They are wonderful to revisit, and good to preserve.  Personally, I do believe there is just as much, if not more – to learn from our family’s struggles and losses.   Growing through them.  Understanding them, perhaps – and maybe, using those lessons to chart a better path ahead.  It may seem contradictory to expectation, but for me – coming to understand the flaws and challenges and disappointments of the past gives me hope.   

Trying to see the world through my Dad’s glasses … even then

When I first found these letters, I was 40; my Mom was in a care facility as I began the nearly 8 yearlong process of what I now call “reclaiming” my childhood home.  She had a bedroom, their bedroom, filled with boxes and things she had shut away.  In them, I found the letters, and … treasures.  Photos of family I never knew.  Family I reconnected with.  And in time, that led to sharing, stories – healing. 

My Dad and I had a difficult relationship for many years.  My own journey seeking help – for a long time, for the wrong problem, unfortunately – led to separation from most of my family other than my Mom.  During that period, I found the letters, and I learned to see that my understanding of the past was, like all of ours, incomplete – I came to a point where I realized that forgiveness was the only door that led to hope.

It took years, help from others, and pain – but in time, I made peace with my Dad. I dare to say we became close; my stepmother passed in early 2006, and my Mom a few months after. Dad outlived them both, and I am glad I could offer him support and care in those days.  After they were gone – I continued to gain insight into their struggles, and mine as well. Eventually the desperation of my own emotional isolation and embedded shame brought me to a place where I found – acceptance, of them, from them, and for myself. Recovery, hope, faith – and love.  And, in a way, I feel closer to both of them now than ever before.  I know them differently today. 

One letter is different from all the others – Dad wrote it to my brother and I at Christmas, with a note that he asked Mom to read it to us.  In it, he writes – “I know that you both will someday have children of your own and my fondest desire is that you will become good, strong men who are loving, and will love your wives and your children. Never become mad or hateful as you only hurt the ones you really love and yourself”. Is that not the wish for every father for their sons?  My mother has two grandchildren, my father four; none from me, but in my imperfect way, I try to share with all four the love that my parents had for their fathers, and I.  And, thank God, I have come to know love, not in the way my parents wished, but one just as real and alive. 

I close the file on these letters from the past; but I do not destroy them. They have shared their lesson with me, and perhaps hopefully with you.  Parents and children, spouses and lovers, hopes and disappointments, sorrow and joy – like the rhythms of waves washing into our lives, generations repeating the longing of our hearts.  With forgiveness, we have the chance to begin again, and build life anew – together.  It is not easy, but there is a way to seek it, and to give it, for us all.  I am thankful I found that doorway, and the life beyond and ahead.  

Clark Kent has left the building

Perhaps you have a secret identity … perhaps we all do. 

I have watched Superman most of my life, starting with the 50’s TV show – black and white repeats at my Dad’s house with the “mole men” and other threats to humanity.  Later, taking my little brother to see Christopher Reeve – about a year after Star Wars, sitting in the theater at Tyler Mall in Riverside – I remember it so clearly, it’s amazing.  Since then, it has been a parade of actors, some pretty bad movies, a few good ones.  They all shared one fascinating ridiculous pretense – that when Clark Kent left the office, no one recognized him as Superman – usually just because of a pair of glasses (although I guess the colorful tights might have distracted some).   No kid wanted to be dull, forgettable Clark – they wanted to fly, be faster than a speeding bullet, and muscles til next week.  I particularly wanted to have destructo vision – still waiting on that. 

But, whenever Clark was gone, no one wondered where he was, usually.  Even smart Margot Kidder set aside her suspicions.  He never seemed to miss deadlines or have performance reviews, or worry about job security.  

And of course, he never retired.  

Perhaps these days you dream of retiring, not having to go into the office (although right now that may be a few feet away from the kitchen), being “free” to do whatever you want.  And, you may worry about money being enough, or health insurance – I did.  My plans didn’t include retiring before 65 – but I reached a point where, for a lot of reasons, I made that choice.  I took the leap – without a cape, without the ability to fly, and without a job – it was just time to stop looking and move on.  This month, my first “early social security check” will arrive, and hopefully that will cover my health care for the few years left before Medicare kicks in – if those programs survive.  And, of course – if I survive.  That IS my intent, but … hey, is your 2020 going as planned? 

What I didn’t realize in this process – from the point where my job search, my dream career in my new home, didn’t seem to be “taking flight”, to the soul searching about budget and goals and what would be best for my new marriage and our lives together – is how much my sense of who I am was tied up in my job.   That it was … my identity.  So much so … it surprises me. 

The past few weeks I have been shredding.  Not the “muscle building” kind, the paper kind.  Destroying records of my past – financial reports, resumes,  representations of the care I put into my work over the decades.  Job reviews, applications; cover letters, offer letters, acceptance letters – resignations.  Going back to the 80’s when I never EVER would have predicted where I would be and what life would look like now.   They all become pieces of trash.  Decades of records that have no ongoing purpose.   

Then, I finished going through my hard drive deleting files … deleting the electronic footprints.  My career, all the efforts to convince someone to hire me, all the reports to demonstrate my contributions; the reference lists that, for the most part, were never called.  It is sobering, a reminder that we have to sell ourselves to strangers, to package our skills and strengths and make it a glossy ad for everything we offer to solve the needs of our employers.   Stacks of “certificates” to show I completed my required education for professional licensing going back more than 35 years … now, all – meaningless.  All those bytes of energy, effort and stress – Zap!!     

The eternal wisdom of Calvin and Hobbes ….

What remains? Of all the things I did in my jobs, the ones that matter most are the lives I touched – the people I hired, or worked alongside to help, to coach, to encourage.  Their careers, their families, their dreams continue, and I am glad I could be a very, very small part of it.  I am also grateful to everyone who had faith in me – in my potential, my contribution – usually they believed in me more than I did myself, hopefully I delivered on their expectation – but whatever the outcome – the door is closed, the desk is cleaned; the “trash” file on my Mac with the old files is empty, the shredder refuse going into the blue barrel. 

That identity – what was so central to my being for decades – is now, just a memory. 

Every stage of life – retirement, unemployment (I’ve been there), every door waiting to be opened –   holds an opportunity to become – maybe not a superhero, but, to go after your dreams.  What I have now that I didn’t while working – is time.  You can earn money, but you cannot earn – or buy – time.  That clock is ticking, and no one knows the final closing time.  What do you want to accomplish before you “leave the office” of life?  If you don’t know that tomorrow will come, how do you live today?  

Time keeps on slipping, slipping, slipping … into the future ……

Perhaps it puts things into a bit of a different focus; maybe not.  I am certainly adjusting my focus (again, where is that destructo vision, please?).  In all this I remind myself that I have much to be thankful for, and the opportunity to share, with my love, good things ahead – quiet good things at home daily, and hopefully, adventures yet to come, in places we now only dream of visiting one day, together.  I am no longer defined by a job description or pay rate, there’s no resume on file, and pretty soon, the suits, ties and Florsheims will go to charity.  Like Clark Kent, I have left the building, but I have no phone booth to change in, no secret identity – but I get to form a new one.  NormL, the new release.  I get to work on choosing it, within limits.  And that is pretty cool.  I hope you too will see that your future still holds amazing promise. 

Will I fly?  We shall see.  But so far, I haven’t bought a cape.  

Look, up in the sky …. who knows what you might find, defying gravity?

The can without a label

There was a time that I studiously reviewed nutrition information for diet control.  It was a lot of work, trying to achieve some balance, consistency between protein, calories from fat, carbs, and all the rest.  It did, in fact, produce results – if I took it seriously.   Then there were the labels on files, whether the card catalogs in the library of my youth, or the tabs on the decades of files I created during my career that went into drawers to be carefully preserved, then just as carefully shredded.  Or the warning labels on weed killers and solvents, insect repellants and medicines, that protect us from misuse and harm.  All these labels help us make good choices.

Then there are the labels that bring … other results. 

In 2013, I stood in front of a high school audience. My nerves were convulsing, heart pounding, my uncertainty whether my words would have meaning for anyone there was only growing greater as the faces of teenage strangers stared up at me, older than most of their parents.  I was trembling, and I probably gave one of the worst presentations of my life.  

I held up a can with the famous Campbell’s logo of red and white, and asked if anyone knew what was in the can – and of course, a few voices spoke out – soup.  But then I removed the label – one I had attached – and held it higher for a moment before I asked – now what is in the can?  Is it the same as the label?   How do you find out? 

Living in a society requires us to use labels for ourselves, and for others.  Some we get from the day we are born – gender, race.  Some our families apply, as roles; others, we are given by our peers.  They can lift us up and tear us down.  They can change – but sometimes we absorb them, cling to them – they become our identity, who we see ourselves as “being”, which may not be anything close to what we try to present to those around us.  We learn to pretend, to stay in our boxes, and – we learn that some labels are to be avoided at all costs.   I am sure you have a list of your own, one you keep deep inside.  Even “forgotten” – their power may resonate in our lives for decades. 

I cried a lot as a young boy, in the mid 60’s; there were reasons.  The pain was real, and I felt very alone.  I remember very clearly once my mother calling me a “pansy”.  That wounded me; she was a loving mother, but also a product of her time and era, and human.  But it stuck with me, branding me as somehow “not what I was supposed to be”.   I remember in 6th grade the other boys in my “mentally gifted minors” program (where girls were the majority) excluding me because they felt I didn’t belong with them. Of course that happens to most of us – but I took in that labeling deep into my soul. In a way, as I went through adolescence and then into college and career, I began to weave those labels into my being.  They were labels that brought shame, that needed to stay hidden. Eventually, I was hidden away too – buried. 

There were labels I tried to display for the groups that I wanted to “belong to”.  Trying to live up to expectations of my family, school, church, classmates – carefully sewing those “labels” deeply into the fabric of the “clothing I wore” for others to see. I didn’t realize others felt the same way, excluded, unacceptable; I thought I was alone. And I learned to I use labels to blame, to exclude, to justify further retreat, burrowing deeper into the dark cave where I had made my hearts home. 

It took decades, a lot of help, self-honesty and pain – but I found my way out of the cave.   It was a long, hard climb.  I perhaps in some ways am still leaving that cave behind – and big part of it was losing the labels.  The labels others had attached to me, the ones I had clung to, and – the ones I slapped on others like bumper stickers.  Losing them all – peeling them off, ripping them out.  They stick deeply in our vision of ourselves and others – you have to keep on pulling away the scraps, the little pieces that cling – to clean away the grime. 

Back in 2013, standing in front of a bunch of students as a fairly new members of the Gay Men’s chorus of LA, really not having a lot of friends even in the chorus because I lived 60 miles away – I felt pretty alone, still, on that stage.  I had only been “out” for less than a year.  But I told them – the best I could – that labels limit life.  Not just labels that are given us, or we take on ourselves – but also the ones we put up to block others away, to keep them from hurting us.   But – we don’t need to allow other’s labels stick to us, nor must we use labels on those near us. Unlike a can of soup or a chemical table – we are more than just a list of names, characteristics, measurements.   No one is a “fixed value”, unchangeable; sometimes the journey of discovery is about letting ourselves come forth. And learning to let others reveal themselves outside the boxes and labels we use on them.  Together, we become something different over time, through choice, and especially through our relationships with one another.

Today, our journey brings us to a place where things we took for granted seem uncertain. Perhaps this is an opportunity as well as a challenge. Every one of us has a universe of possibilities ahead.  Every single one, even if we only have today to live.  Letting go of the walls we put around ourselves – the limits we set by embracing some idea that we do not measure up, we are not good enough – so what?  We are walking miracles.  Your very existence today, the fact you are here, is a wondrous mystery, swimming with promise – perhaps buried under years of labels that you have lived with, but it is time to tear down.  To toss away, not just for us – but for everyone in our life.  Those around us we have boxed away with our judgments and set aside because they didn’t meet our standards, they don’t look the right way or vote the right way or believe the right way – those walls keep us from becoming what we can, together.   When we stick those “unwanted cans” in the back of the cupboard – we all “go hungry”. 

I doubt whether my little speech to those students registered, and my time with the Chorus was short – but it was a step in my becoming.  We can work towards becoming more like the labels that we want to live up to. Yes, there are labels worth using, and worth keeping.  Yet, perhaps it is worth taking some time to reconsider whether some of the labels we “wear” in our thinking – and those we have “stuck” to others in our lives – need to go.   There are enough limits in life without them.   If we can look beyond them, perhaps we can discover new flavors, new possibilities, and new life.  Together.  

Scraps and fragments

I have always loved time travel stories.  There are some amazing theories about time, how we experience it, what exists within and perhaps outside the flow as we move through it.  But eventually we are left only with stories, photos, documents and memories.  Learning my own family stories gave me both hope and courage to move ahead with some of life’s most difficult challenges – and I have come to believe that it is the experiences of struggle, conflict, even despair, that sometimes have the most power for our lives.  

So here I will be sharing those stories, those discoveries.  You might well think that the details of these moments from the past have no meaning for anyone but me or some relatives somewhere – but I suggest otherwise.  So, I am going to write about them here.  They are not all pretty, or happy endings (perhaps) – but they are real, at least in the sense they are truth that I know, which is never of course all of it.  And I will do my best to share them honestly. 

Many of them I have because my Mom was in many ways a hoarder.  She was a disabled single mother with two boys, age 9 and 6 at the time of her divorce; in time, hopefully, I can share more about her life, but what is relevant today is that she kept a room in our childhood home crammed with boxes, things that we were supposed to stay away from, never to be touched.  It is odd she preserved the past yet wanted to perhaps insulate herself from it at the same time; whatever her motives, I am grateful that I was eventually able to sort through it and review some of it in her later years, while she was in a care facility.  She passed there in May 2006, Memorial day weekend. 

Before her passing, and that of my father nearly a year later, along with the passing over that same two years of my uncle, stepmother, and my Dad’s cousin Bill, I was able to talk with them, reconnect with relatives and meet others for the first time, visit family sites, and learn more about the people whose messages were preserved in the cards, letters, photos, documents and diaries.  Now, “sheltering at home”, I am beginning the process of culling from them something to preserve for my broader family – no children of my own, of course, but cousins, nieces, nephews and others who share this heritage. 

There is a mountain of paper.  I haven’t really looked at these files since my move to SF move than two years ago – it was always “important” but now that circumstances force me to stay home, it is time to climb the mountain.  This past week or so our dining room table has been covered in files, and some of it – has gone in the trash.  Deciding what is worth keeping is daunting.  I kind of feel like I am throwing out irreplaceable items, and yes, they are – but irreplaceable is not the same as worthwhile.  

Among the fragments, envelopes, plastic baggies and other stacks of what have you were the kind of things we stick in drawers thinking we might need someday, but never do.  As I went through them and started to toss things in the trash, I realized these little scraps of paper reflected not just the ordinary items in my Mom’s life, but something more. There were business cards for doctors, for gift shops and florists;  receipts for books orders, thank you notes from friends.  Birth announcements and baby showers;  on the other end, death notices. Neighbors going back to the 60’s.  Lists of members of her bible study groups, where they had moved to, their children.  My Mom … cared.  She really did care about all these people, and many names I had not seen for decades.  

These were pieces of my mother’s heart, of her life and memories, now … gone, with her. 

In time I will share more about my Mom … her love, and the limits on it, and how that affected me and others.  She was a person of faith, in many ways turning to that to cope with the physical – and emotional – pain of her disability, and her past.  For now, I just want to share some pictures of what I found, little pieces of a life not to be remembered by many, not particularly distinctive or world changing, yet meaningful, just as many of your parents or your own lives – lives that matter in small ways but nevertheless do indeed matter. 

Here is a 1954 letter from Humphrey’s music co. before my parent’s marriage, for the “splendid manner in which you have paid your contract obligation” and assuring her “You have compiled an enviable credit rating in Long Beach”.   There was a cultural politeness, an etiquette (for some) then, which no longer exists.  Why she kept this all those years is a mystery, just like some of the other weird items like the thank you note from J. Edgar Hoover. 

A small scrap of an ad for a backyard children’s swingset from the LA Times in 1962 with a handwritten notation “Hope to buy for James and Norman in our new home”.  They had been married 8 years or so by this point – about 2 years remained before that ended, but the swingset was in our yard, rusting and deteriorated, well into the 1990’s when I returned to care for the house once she was unable to remain.  We had fun on that, in our little tract house backyard.  All that for $33 in 1962!!

From somewhere in between those dates, or maybe even earlier when she worked for McDonnel Douglas Aircraft in Long beach – “Your Social Security account card” pamphlet filled with helpful advice.  Funny how most of the information is pretty much the same today. 

An unused thank you note with a scripture and an illustration of a cat – she always loved cats, but we never had pets of our own.  “May your day be blessed with simple pleasures”.  She was a stickler for sending cards, all occasions, and kept many that she received from family. A tradition that is becoming lost along with many others.

Including this one – which I will be keeping to pass on to my oldest niece – her birth announcement from 1994.  My Mom loved her grandchildren, but did not get to have what many grandparents share, due to distance and other factors.  “There is no such thing as a small miracle”, with pink ribbon.  She also had handwritten notes for each birth with weights and time. 

I am sure my Mom would think of my older brother’s children as her most lasting legacy, one I could not offer, but there are others in the way she touched our lives.  She was by no means a saint – saints are mythical figures, for the most part – but she tried to share love with people around her.  Like her parents before her, the marriage she had looked forward to ultimately failed, and she was left broken in more ways than physically.  She turned to faith for encouragement, and to share it with others as best she could.  We did not always have the relationship that she wanted – I could not be the son she had hoped I would become, and that was something that was never resolved between us – but we still shared love. 

So what do I take away from this tiny scoop out of the mountain of paper that lies now in folders and boxes awaiting the judgement of “keep” or “trash”. Little scraps of paper, soon to be picked up in our recyclable barrel, on to the dump.  Names, addresses, most of people long gone, like Mom.  Someday, someone will be throwing out my scraps of paper – and yours.  Little fragments of our lives and memories, moments that only we remember, already perhaps fading.  But it is not the paper which we need to preserve.

There are people in our lives today that will not be here perhaps sooner than we imagine, and they have loved us, and fought with us, disappointed us and rejected us but also lifted us up.  We have done the same to others in our lives.  Perhaps we should search the fragments and notes in our drawers and address books and reach out, one more time.  While we can.  Take their hands, sit with them; thank them.  And for those we cannot thank here and now, to take the time to preserve them.  To ensure their love, and sacrifice, lives on – in our actions in the days to come, as well as in the memories, faded photos, and scraps we leave behind.  

Thank you Mom.  I am glad we came to a place of peace together.  Not all your lessons were good ones, but you taught me love, and I am grateful even today you are teaching me still.  

Forgetting what was not

Wow, April is just barely half over, and it’s already been a very busy month!  We started off with our monthly “Mah Johng” group dinner and play – it’s not the easiest game to win but we do have a lot of fun and have made new friends there.  Then we attended a wonderful live program at the newly restored Presidio theater – a tribute to Billie Holiday – preceded by a delightful dinner at “our” restaurant, Arguello’s (we had our wedding near both).  The following Tuesday, I finally saw the famed “Book of Mormon” which Bob had seen more than once – it was hilarious, and we really had a great time.  The next weekend brought the 150th anniversary of Golden Gate park – I had volunteered to help with a very memorable “AIDS Quilt” display and will share those pics another time, it was very moving, and I am so glad I could support it. We enjoyed a visit with our friends from So Cal that same weekend, and took just a few days off before seeing a local production of the 50’s musical, the rarely seen “Pajama Game” by 42ndstreet moon – I had seen it once when my 6th grade class went to the Corona Civic Center to see our teacher, Mr. Compton, in the lead role.  Love that “Hernando’s hideaway” number!  Bob enjoyed the NY Met Opera streaming of Tosca, one of his favorites, and this weekend we will be attending the SF Symphony as they welcome a very special international orchestra – part of our subscription that has really been a great experience.  We really need a break from all this fun!   Before the month ends, we have a special tour of the Sales Force Tower complex by SF City Guides, a weekend getaway to nearby friends, and yes, a dentist appointment (ugh!)

Of course … all that was only on our calendar. They were our plans for the month – but, they never happened.   Most never will. Along with your plans and all the routine, ordinary events of what we considered everyday life. What we took for granted.

When I established this blog several months ago, I wanted to share my thoughts about life as I dealt with constant changes.  As I became the “new Norm L”.   But just weeks ago, no one really envisioned how drastically life would change and how soon.  Now, it seems like there is some sort of expectation that people want to hold on to – I know I do – that things will “return to normal”. 

Time to let go of that expectation, at least from my perspective.

In order to take hold of something, first, you must have a free hand.  Letting go of hopes, expectations – long held dreams and goals – is almost like a loss.   But letting go of what your life was already like – all the things you took for granted, that seemed guaranteed to just be the way they were forever – that is a different kind of difficult.  My friends, we MUST face that challenge, individually and together, to build a new life that has meaning.

Our future will be much better, and we will find our way to it easier, by not expecting it to be “what it used to be”.   What do you, or I, need to release from our expectations?  Maybe that is worth thinking about for a while.  Because being a prisoner to what “ought to be” prevents us from enjoying what is, and what can be.  It takes strength to hold on – and strength to let go – but it takes wisdom to know when to do either. And faith.

It is not easy to practice gratitude for things that aren’t the way you want them to be.  But for me, this is the time to do just that.  To be thankful in the midst of all this, to express hope for an uncertain future – that is a light in the murky greys ahead.  A light for now, and for tomorrow.  

Walking in the darkness

Being trained as an accountant had many, many advantages. For one, it kept me employed, and I am grateful for that. I was drawn math from an early age in school, because I wanted to be able to “get the right answer” – in class, on papers, for grades … and then, in life. Being “right” was just SOOOO important, I am sure I tried the patience of many people over my life with that so called “need”. A lonely child, I didn’t have many close friends in school – so I got some sense of worth by getting grades.

However, life is not a math problem you can solve. Insisting on being “right” didn’t lead me to the life I wanted in my heart. The older I get, the more I begin to see that wisdom is not having knowledge, not having answers, not knowing what is right – but wisdom is rather knowing, even celebrating, that you cannot have the answers all the time. Then, finding a way to live without them, or at least all of them. And in that fundamental ignorance, that powerlessness to know absolutely – to not be able to be “right” – to find contentment. To be at peace with the limitations of your ability to understand.

This week, nearly a month into “shelter in place”, many around the world find they cannot hold their traditional commemorations of traditions of faith together – in particular, Passover and Easter. As a child, I have many memories of Easter morning excitement, egg coloring and hunts, church services, dinners and stories about bunnies and about Christ. And, as was true for many in that time and our society, I was told these things were very, very certain and absolute. In my teens, down the street, I became friends with someone from my junior high whose heritage was Jewish, and came to realize they had very different celebrations. Over the years, through relationships, travel, reading and a lot of personal reflection, I realized that there were a lot of questions about truths that I had been taught – questions I could not answer. Reasonable questions, that for some, could not be discussed or considered.

So today is Easter 2020, one quite different than most of us have known in our lifetimes. Last year we attended a beautiful service at Grace Cathedral, a San Francisco landmark and refuge for decades, with traditional music, ceremony, and readings. This year, Grace and other houses of worship and reflection lie empty. I awoke and made a short trip to our local park with a hillside view to watch the sunrise – trudging along the dark path alone, only the birdsong to greet the dawn. But the dark only turned into a dreary gray, clouds and fog making no space for sun to burst through in glory. Still, I knew it was there, and found comfort in that quiet hour, watching our city awaken.

When we “hold certain truths to be self evident”, or grab tightly on to some belief system because it is so central to our identity that we cannot bear to open our mind to the possibility that it has never been true – we burrow into a cave, close our eyes, and die. Our spirits die, hiding in the dark, afraid to be found out, to be discovered as somehow being “wrong”. But it is in admitting my own flawed character and my ignorance that I begin to see light – a love that transcends the rules and limitations of the past. Our world needs that love. I have many, many friends who have extreme bitterness about their treatment at the hands of people of faith – many faiths – because they did not conform. That works both ways – there is plenty of finger pointing to go around, plenty of blame, plenty of “practice what you preach” and “you didn’t live up to what you expect of me”. Maybe we need to let go of some of the things we grasp and take hold of one another hands instead.

People of faith, many faiths – the world religions but also the smaller, less traditional or more personal belief systems – have done much to reach out with love, to build our world, to support understanding and peace. Great damage has been done as well in the name of religion – power, conquest, dominion, riches at the expense of others. Many have been so hurt by actions done in the name of deity that even the concept of a loving creator is unthinkable. Perhaps they are right, but I have reached a place where I can understand that the actions of individuals or groups don’t necessarily support or refute deeper truths – but also that ultimately I won’t probably ever have the answers to my questions. Being at peace about my lack of answers allows me to acknowledge my own fallibility, and embrace that others imperfections, and move beyond those limits to share with those around me what we have to offer in love and acceptance.

In my friends and family there are many ways of thinking embraced, but every one of those people in my life demonstrate love, and I treasure them all. I still hold many beliefs – some that continue to grow and evolve. I don’t try to explain them or make them fit every situation, because – they don’t. So, at Easter, and Passover, and other times of memories and celebration, in part because my knowledge of them both has increased over the years, I respect the needs of all around me to reach out and be in touch with something Eternal outside themselves. Whether through ritual cleansing, special prayers, songs or moments of reflection – or perhaps outreach and community gatherings – I see the value of holding on and expressing faith in a greater Power.

At last, I am a least a little closer to be able to accept a love that comes from beyond my understanding, walk in it, and try to share it – without understanding it, or labeling it, or trying to put it in a box with a bow for others to accept. Without trying to prove it or convince someone, but … trying to live it a little better. And I feel a kind of peace, at least, in no longer needing to have the answers. For me, the answers are in the hearts, and the loving smiles and acts, of those who turn their eyes upward and seek deliverance, seek forgiveness, even though we sense that on their own, we are undeserving, but the source of that Love they feel offers it freely. Perhaps that is a kind of wisdom, but even if foolish, I will gladly be a fool for the gift of giving and receiving grace. And love. Love, always.

Welcome to – and from- the new NormL

What on earth am I doing?

This is a deeply personal blog – that I am sharing publicly.  Why? And why NOW??  Read on. 

Most of my life, I just wanted to be like everyone else.  To be what I was “supposed to be”.   To meet the expectations of those whose approval I so craved but felt I never lived up to – family, peer groups, social norms.  

But try as I could, I never felt … good enough.  I never lived up to what I though was my potential.  I suffered from depression, low self esteem, loneliness – those grew into other behaviors that drew me further away from really connecting or belonging.  I was always trying to be … someone I wasn’t.


As the one panel comic once illustrates in 50’s advertising style, with a mother telling her daughter … “oh honey, normal is just a setting on a dryer”. 

Over the years, I have been through a lot of change.  Not always the change I sought, not always the destinations I would have picked.  Some would say I grew, matured; some would say I lost my way and strayed from “the Truth”.   One thing is for sure … my life is very different now.  And … a lot better. Not all easy, but … on the right path, finally.

So, in late 2019, I decided I wanted to start a blog.  A place where I could share whatever lessons my life had to offer, and my adventures, and maybe some humor.  Over the years, when I have written from my heart to family and friends, there have been times I know my words somehow touched them, and I guess my ego was nudging me to put whatever I had “out there”, perhaps in hope that the life education that came at a high price for me might have benefit to someone, somewhere. 

I decided, since my last name  starts with L, that I would call my blog … the new NormL.  Not trying to be normal … but learning to be me.   To somehow through my small little voice among the billions of words flying through consciousness, say something that might help others going through the same questions I was.  The big questions.    Dealing with change, reconsidering priorities, sharing discoveries.  

Being somewhat of a perfectionist, one who never achieved anything close to it but still deludes themselves into the illusion of it’s possibility, I put starting off  “The New NormL” for several months.  Truth is, I wanted to present my blog with all the bells and whistles, learn all the keys, make a splash.  Like we all do with dreams …. Wait for a better day, when you can do it right.  Wait until it’s too late.  

Then, in the last month for many of us, abruptly – our world changed. Maybe, as some say, “the universe” had a different plan.  Maybe not.  Bottom line … all that was before stories started to circulate about an illness in China.  And you know the rest.   

So most of us are holding our breath right now, spring 2020 … waiting.  Waiting for answers.  Wondering what life will look like on the “other side” of all this – will we return to normal?  Well …. Were we ever there?   Or did we accept what was, as what “should be”??   Whatever the truth is about the world before 2020 … I don’t think anyone can honestly say it is going to be the same, someday down the road.  

So now … my blog is finally kicking off without me having learned how to use the software or graphics, without backgrounds and really without much of anything except my thoughts.   This is a place where I am going to write about what I am learning in life, and what I think I learned – in hopes it might help some out there dealing with change.  Maybe you. Maybe someone you love. It will be worth the effort, the honesty, the openness if what I paid a high price for can bring good to another life, in some little way. Change is possible but it doesn’t come easy, and it doesn’t happen alone – but with the love and support of others.  If there was ever a time we cannot ignore the need for change, it is now.  

So, here we go.  I have no plan, just lots of ideas, thoughts … a place for me to share, and maybe for some of you to get something out of what I put out here.  Whether you come along from the start or discover me down the way a bit,  I hope you find your way to your best and truest self – because that’s what our new world needs.  I’m working on it, just like you.  Love always.